Rick Ross is asked to add Fr. Ephraim to his Suspected Cults Home Page (John & Jo Ann Pantanizopoulos, 1999)

NOTE: Rick Ross’ rickross.com website is now defunct. He has recently written a book entitled,  Cults Inside Out: How People Get In and Can Get Out Although Rick Ross promotes himself as a professional “cult expert”, a review of his educational background shows that quite apart from being anti-Christian (he refers to Christians as “Bible bangers”) has no religious educational credentials whatsoever. To the contrary, his only formal education is a high school diploma. Self-aggrandizement and personal financial reward seem to be Ross’ primary motive for his attacks on Christians and members of other faiths. Public records reveal that Ross has been the subject of at least three arrests, including an attempted burglary, embezzlement of $100,000 worth of jewelry from a jewelry store, and kidnapping. Two of these arrests resulted in convictions. In the third, Ross’ co-conspirators plead guilty to lesser charges while Ross evaded being found guilty. Ross was sued civilly by the victim in the same kidnapping incident and was punished by the jury for over $3 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

The Cult-Deprogrammer Hall of Fame.
The Cult-Deprogrammer Hall of Fame.

May 1, 1999   Rick Ross P.O. Box 32906 Phoenix, AZ  85064-2906

Dear Mr. Ross,

We discovered your web site as we were browsing the “20-20” home page that recently discussed the Jim Roberts’ Group cult.  Unlike the parents of those cult members, we think we know where our son Niko is — St. Anthony’s Monastery, Florence, Arizona (although we haven’t heard from him since he wrote a short letter in November 1998); we also know that every characteristic mentioned about a cult fits the description of monasteries and convents founded by this Greek Orthodox monk, Fr. Ephraim.  We do not denounce monasteries or those adults who enter them; however we question the tactics, the process, the counseling that should precede such a choice, and the absence of including the family and looking at family vulnerabilities that would lead a young adult to choose this lifestyle.  This specific charismatic monk incorporates every type of coercion used by all cults in cult literature:  strict control of daily life, daily confession, isolation from family and friends, loading the language, etc.; followers claim he has levitated, and even that he has predicted the world will end in 60 years.

Followers claim Geronda Ephraim has predicted the world will end in 60 years.
Followers claim Geronda Ephraim has predicted the world will end in 60 years.

To see and read more about these monasteries/convents and where they’re located, go to:  www.coutput.com/stanthonys

To read opposing opinions about this monk and the dangerous role he plays in the hierarchy of the Greek Orthodox Church, go to:  www.voithia.org

If you need more details about Fr. Ephraim, you can contact Theodore Kalmoukos, a religious reporter with the National Herald (Ethnikos Kyrikas), a Greek newspaper published in the New York area.

Fr. Carellas claimed Fr. Ephraim as his spiritual father.  During Fr. Carellas’ tenure at our church, he spoke of “super Orthodoxy,” a fiercely traditional cult-like pursuit of Christianity.  His ideas were rejected by our parish, and as a result, Carellas was removed from our church by the Atlanta diocese bishop and re-located to a convent in Saxonburg, PA.  Fr. Carellas, father of f

Fr. Carellas claimed Fr. Ephraim as his spiritual father.
Fr. Carellas claimed Fr. Ephraim as his spiritual father.

our children, divorced his wife after he decided to become a priest.  Before he became a priest, he was a mechanical engineer and served as an officer in the military.

When our son was 16 years old, we learned that our oldest daughter was HIV positive.  All of our family drew closer to the church for comfort; however, Niko drew even closer because of his friendship with our priest (at the time) Father Carellas and his son, who was the same age and grade in school as Niko. Thinking Niko might enter the seminary to study to become a priest, we encouraged this close association with Fr. Carellas.  As parents, we thought at the time that church was a safer place.   Yet, we saw Niko slowly giving up his extensive comic book collection, taking down posters of his favorite music groups,  reading only books (written by desert fathers, mostly of Russian Orthodox background) suggested by Fr. Carellas, and listening only to monastic chanting and classical music.  We saw our son change from a happy person to a somber and judgmental individual.  After only one year of college, he told us in April that he was going to become a monk and left our home in May 1996 when he was 18 years old.   During Niko’s transformation, there was no attempt made by Fr. Carellas to include us in this monumental decision our son had made.  We encouraged Niko to speak with Fr. Katinas, our new priest, but Niko said that Fr. Katinas was a “modernist” because he didn’t fit Fr. Carellas’ ultra-Orthodox beliefs.  Our pleas, our tears, our logic did not sway him.  He listened only to Frs. Carellas and Ephraim.  That same year three young people from our small church in Knoxville entered an Ephraim-led monastery and convent (ages 18, 18, and 21) due to their vulnerability and Fr. Carellas’ indoctrination.

AZ 0000000000000000

Shortly after Niko entered the monastery, we begged him to come home to be at his oldest sister’s wedding.  He refused, saying, “I’ll visit her on her death bed.  I’ll see her in heaven.”  His language is loaded with “If it’s God’s will.”  When we asked him when he would know he was ready to become a monk, he said Father Ephraim would tell him.  When we asked if God would tell him instead, he replied, “I am not worthy to speak to God.  Only Fr. Ephraim and the elders are worthy enough to have a dialogue with God.”  When we asked if he couldn’t serve God by working with people as Mother Teresa did, he said, “That’s just social work.”  When we reminded him that Jesus did not escape from humanity but worked with people instead, he said, “Jesus had his calling. I have mine.”  When we pleaded that he listen to us and give “the world” a chance, he said that we were his parents only in the physical sense–Fr. Ephraim was now his spiritual father and the only one to whom he need obey.

Metropolitan Sotirios of Toronto,  agreed Ephraim's monasteries & methods of collecting young and vulnerable adults is cultic.
Metropolitan Sotirios of Toronto, agreed Ephraim’s monasteries & methods of collecting young and vulnerable adults is cultic.

In addition to speaking with other church officials and the Metropolitan Sotirios of Toronto, Canada  (who  agreed Ephraim’s  monasteries/convents and methods of collecting young and vulnerable adults is cultic), we have met twice with Patriarch Bartholomew asking for intervention with no result.  In fact, at the second meeting with the Patriarch and in front of Niko, the Patriarch suggested Niko return home to check into his health problems.  Niko later refused to even consider the idea.  He said, “That was only a suggestion, not a command.”

The Patriarch's visit to St. Anthony's, November 1997
The Patriarch’s visit to St. Anthony’s, November 1997

After only one year and nine months, Niko was tonsured as a monk, rejected his baptismal and family name of Nikolaos, and took the name of Theologos.  According to church tradition, the amount of time an individual serves as novice is three years.  There was no warning or an invitation to attend the ceremony sent to us.  Niko even said that it came as a surprise to him as well that he was to be tonsured on that day.

We have tried to involve the media in some way to help us expose this growing cult in the U.S.  In October 1997, Ethnikos Kyrix (National Herald) published an article about our family’s despair.  In June 1998, we contacted the Dateline tv show and spoke at length with an investigator, Jeff Pohlman (1-800-622-6397 ext. 6963),  who promised to look into it.  However, after only three days, he called back saying he’d contacted the Archdiocese with questions and was satisfied that our son was in an established monastery.  This is like asking the wolf if he ate the lamb.  Of course the wolf would deny it!  The present Church leadership is in accord with the super-Orthodox approach and in disagreement with the majority of the Greek American laity. Please see www.voithia.org for more information. Although Mr. Pohlman did not reveal our name or exact details, he did tell us that the spokesman at the Archdiocese asked him, “Did that family in Tennessee ask you to investigate?”

Jeff Pohlman, Investigative Reporter
Jeff Pohlman, Investigative Reporter

We are asking, after due investigation on your part, if you would please list Ephraim’s name and his growing number of monasteries/convents to the list of suspected cults on your home page. We have names of other parents in the same situation as ours.  Perhaps by your listing the Ephraim-led monasteries, other parents in similar circumstances would feel the courage to speak up. Our ultimate goal is to have our son return home.  Should you need additional details from us, please contact us at home.   Sincerely yours,

(signed)

John & Jo Ann Pantanizopoulos Knoxville, TN

Editor’s Note: The relationship between monastic life and parish life in general, and the role of Fr. Ephraim in particular, continue to be controversial issues in our Church. Voithia’s recent coverage of this topic has included articles by U.S. hierarchs, clergy, and laity, by the Greek press, and our own stories.

To date neither Voithia nor GOAL has taken a position on this topic. A resolution on the subject was introduced at the GOAL national conference in March, 1998, but it was withdrawn due to a lack of consensus at the time.

The above letter was sent to Rick Ross, with a copy to GOAL, asking Mr. Ross to list Fr. Ephraim and his monasteries on his website as suspected cults. As of this writing Mr. Ross has not done so.

On May 5, 1997, The Orthodox Observer, in its “Tell Me Father” column, published an anonymous letter from a parishioner in Tennessee (the home state of Mr. and Mrs. Pantanizopoulos) to then-Fr. George, now Bishop George, Papaioannou, and his response. The full text of that column is reprinted below.

Reader’s Response:

Last year I stayed at the monastery at Florence for six days. During that time I worked on the grounds under the direction of Father Theologos. He did not seem like he was brain washed or under mind control. For that matter during that time I did not witness any cult of Father Ephraim such as the excesses that have been reported on this news group.

I am sorry that Father Theologos’ decision has made his parents so sad. However, I am not entirely sure that their sorrow ought to be used as ammunition to attack Father Ephraim. I know that if any of my children wished to become monks it would make me very sad simply because I would get to see them so much less. However, this would not in any way imply that they had joined a cult.

I usually remain silent but I have some experience with Father Theologos. Last year, I stayed at St. Anthony’s for six days and during that time worked on the grounds with Father Theologos. At no time was there the appearance of brain washing. Further, during that period, Father Ephriam was staying at the monastery. At no time was there any of the outrageous cultic behavior that is constantly reported in this news group.

I know that if my children decide to become monks it will make me very sad. The reason is simple. I love them deeply and hope that I will get to grow old along with them and see their children. On the other hand, I pray I will not create a big fuss if they do.

I would like to clarify my testimony. I am not a monastic wannabe as are so many converts to Orthodoxy. On the whole my impression of the monastery was negative. I don’t think that monastic life tells lay people anything about how to live our lives and I did not get an impression of great holiness. (Of course, this probably has something to do with my own sinfulness.)

I am completely astonished about the big fuss about Father Ephraim. If you don’t want him as a teacher, don’t follow him. If others find his teaching edifying, why bother them?

–Ricks